Meghann Foye made waves recently, following a New York Post interview promoting her new book about the need for “me-ternity leave” for women who are not mothers. Reflecting on her career, Ms. Foye bemoans the unfairness that “parents on staff left the office at 6 p.m. to tend to their children, while it was assumed co-workers without kids would stay behind to pick up the slack.” She also observes positive changes in women returning from maternity leave. Mothers returning to the workforce after having a baby have a new confidence, and the ability to put home life before work. All these Ms. Foye attributes to the fact that mothers have just spent three months enjoying “socially mandated time and space for self-reflection.” Before taking her own “me-ternity,” she viewed parenthood as “the only path that provided a modicum of flexibility” in her professional life. She explains: “There’s something about saying ‘I need to go pick up my child’ as a reason to leave the office on time that has far more gravitas than, say, ‘My best friend just got ghosted by her OkCupid date and needs a margarita’—but both sides are valid.” She concludes that all women, even those who are not mothers, need to take time to think about themselves and learn to prioritize life outside of work.
Ms. Foye’s foolish (bordering on hilarious) ideas about the nature of parenting and the realities of maternity leave have provoked numerous responses. Any mom could tell you that the first few months with a newborn are anything but time and space for self-reflection. Nor does parenthood in any way, shape, or form give one greater flexibility, unless you mean figuring out how to kneel on the bathroom floor while nursing a baby while also wiping a toddler’s behind, all while talking on the phone. But while her examples are quite silly, Ms. Foye’s arguments actually do hold water. Society widely accepts her basic principles, which are that children are choices to be made when convenient, and that life even with kids ought to be about self-fulfillment. If one grants those two notions, then parenthood really is no more than an expensive, time-intensive hobby, and those who are not parents might as well claim the same perks, as they see them.
It’s the reductio ad absurdum of the principle, but Ms. Foye is not laughing. Why should she? She lives, as we all do, in a society that has embraced many absurdities regarding children and family life, some more sinister than others. Ms. Foye is blind to these absurdities, but it is a blindness shared by a society that promotes sexuality alienated from sacrificial love and child-rearing.
Western society fights tooth and nail for the idea that everyone is entitled to sex whenever, however, and with whomever they want it. However, because society does not want to encumber all this sex with babies, family, or any notion of self-sacrifice, the resulting contradictions are tolerated, or whole-heartedly embraced. Since having a child becomes a personal choice based on convenience, any means to prevent inconvenient babies are allowed, whether that be contraceptives, abortion, or sterilizing mutilation.
On the flip side, since society does reduce children to a choice, it also grants that if you do want a baby, you have a right to a baby. Women have the “right” to in vitro fertilization, so that—should nature stand in the way—your choice to have a baby still holds, even if you have to make that baby in a glass dish and freeze the extras. By the same logic, sterile couples, including same-sex couples, may pay for a woman to act as surrogate, so that they can grow a baby (sometimes their own, and sometimes a child completely unrelated to them) in that woman’s body. Having children becomes something I want when I want it, rather than being about children for their own sake. Again, parenting is reduced to an expensive hobby—one lifestyle choice among many of equal value. With her desire for “me-ternity leave,” Ms. Foye merely points to another logical conclusion based on the elevation of the individual. She just wants what she wants when she wants it, but without the kids.
But while Ms. Foye’s arguments may not be ridiculous compared to other absurdities present in our culture (is it really any more ridiculous than the “right” of homosexuals to adopt?), the fact that they are rooted in unchastity makes it impossible for many in our society to see truth. In his book The Four Cardinal Virtues, Josef Pieper defines unchastity as intemperance with regard to sexuality, “a deep rooted basic attitude of man, and as it were, a second nature to him.” Immediately a distinction must be made. Pieper is not talking about the sexual sins into which one might fall through weakness. In that situation, a person might honestly be striving to live a virtuous life, and recognize sins against purity for what they are: sins. What Pieper does mean when speaking of unchastity or intemperance is the case of the man “who sins from a deep-rooted basic attitude of intemperance (and) directs his will expressly toward sin…indeed, ‘he is happy to have sinned, because sinning has become ‘natural’ for him.’” To live unchastely is to seek evil and think it good. To be precise, unchastity seeks self-indulgence in an area of life which most ought to be self-less: sex, marriage, and children.
Chastity necessarily orders man towards what is greater than himself, moving him to think of the good of others before his own pleasure. Unchastity, by its very nature, destroys that order within man himself, creating a unique and devastating blindness toward reality, toward truth. Pieper observes, “unchastity constricts man and thus renders him incapable of seeing objective reality. An unchaste man wants above all something for himself…his constantly strained will-to-pleasure prevents him from confronting reality with that selfless detachment which alone makes genuine knowledge possible.” Such an attitude obviously pervades a culture in which we approach relationships with the attitude of whether or not a person fulfills me, satisfies me; whether kids will inconvenience me; whether I can still be all about me when I do have kids. Meghann Foye even says at the conclusion of her Post interview, “I’m happy my ‘meternity’ taught me to live on my own terms and advocate what works for me.” In all honesty, she thinks that mothers on leave are learning how to focus on themselves, just in a new way. Hers is a completely absurd understanding, but it is also completely consistent with that unique blindness which springs from seeking self in an area of life essentially ordered toward the good of others and society.
It ought to be self-evident that having children is a far greater undertaking than any hobby or personal diversion. Indeed, raising children carries such great importance that family life deserves protection, respect, and assistance from the greater community surrounding it. After all, where do members of society come from but from families? Aristotle knew this long ago, and the truth has not changed since he said, “Inasmuch as every family is a part of a state, and these relationships are parts of a family, and the virtue of the part must have regard to the virtue of the whole…children must be trained by education with an eye to the constitution, if (their) virtues are supposed to make any difference in the virtues of the state. And they must make a difference: for the children grow up to be citizens.” The better the families, the better the future society will be. Families are, as Pope Benedict XVI puts it, “the nucleus for the formation of the state community.” Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea views “First World” treatments of family life with horror—stating what should be universally understood,: “The family is a place where man learns to be of service to society.” He recognizes the essential role of family life as the foundation of society: “On my continent, the family is the melting pot of the values that irrigate the whole culture, the place where customs, wisdom, and moral principles are handed down, the cradle of unconditional love.” Such family formation needs encouragement and support from a greater community—a community that will, in turn, benefit from good family life. Statistics abound demonstrating that crime goes down and education goes up—as does meaningful participation in society—in communities with intact families raising children. Parents are crucial to a healthy family, and therefore also to a healthy society.
So, non-parents, don’t get grabby when parents do receive some help from society. They need it, and you need for them to receive it. Every member of the greater community owes a debt of support and gratitude toward families. Parents, by having children, and by raising them well, contribute to society, and ensure that there will be a future for mankind—or rather, that mankind will be present for the future. It’s actually beneficial to you for parents to have children and raise them as good and virtuous and contributing members of society. Let mamas have their maternity leave, Ms. Foye. God willing, they are learning that that life is not “all about me,” and teaching their children the same.
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